The Medieval era has proved to be a rich source of fashion inspiration in recent years – with the growth of cottagecore, simpler styles of living using homemade clothing have been a welcome refuge from the strains of the world. The subculture of reproducing medieval clothing techniques has reached greater scope than ever with the internet, with makers like Morgan Donner seeking to resurrect lost tailoring arts. There are even an increasing number of online stores where you can buy fantastic off-the-shelf medieval clothing for roleplaying and re-enactment.
Medieval fashion was pretty extra at time, and some of it is seriously alien to modern taste. But some of them are too incredible to be left in the past – are you brave enough to bring these Medieval fashion trends back (in public)?
A Long Line of Medievalists
Our modern times are far from the only time that ‘medievalism’ has swept the world of fashion and art! During the Renaissance era, medieval clothing and fashions were consciously rejected in favor of new styles: the millennium between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance (c. 500 CE – c. 1500 CE) was conceived of as a Dark Age, with the ‘perfect’ forms of Classical Antiquity being resurrected by Renaissance men.
But in the 18th century, the Romantic movement began to look to the Medieval period for inspiration: artists like the Romantic Poets took direct inspiration from Medieval literature, and numerous translations of the original tales appeared in modern vernacular. The rediscovery and reinvention of medieval clothing reached fever pitch during the Victorian era. Antiquarianism and empire combined to create a fusion of the medieval and the thoroughly modern. Public spaces were transformed along medieval lines, with three-fourths of churches built in Britain during the Victorian era were arranged in a ‘Gothic’ model. As well, the domestic became ‘medievalized’ too: big beards came back into fashion, people began to name their children after characters in rediscovered Romantic medieval literature, and styles of reconstructed medieval clothing became popular. The obsession of the 19th century British elite with the self-consciously Medieval can be seen most clearly in King George IV’s coronation in 1820, an enormous pseudo-medieval spectacular, complete with Tudor and Stuart period costume and knights in armor riding up and down amidst the banquet!
When you don these five outrageous items of medieval clothing, you’ll be standing in the footsteps of giants.
5. Poulaines – Shoes That’ll Have Your Eye Out
If you had to name the first medieval clothing object that pops into your head – chances are, it’ll be pointy shoes. The fashion for pointy shoes originates in the 15th century, when pointy shoes were called poulaines or crackowes – these names referred to ‘Poland’ or ‘Kraków’, because they were thought to be exotic and scandalous. Some were over a foot in length, and had to be tied to the calf to allow the wearer to actually walk. They were bound up with a complex mix of class and sex – they were designed to be extravagant and impractical, implying that the wearer could afford staff to do menial tasks, and they were also highly suggestive! The Catholic Church blasted them as “more suitable as claws for demons than as ornaments for men”. High time we started flapping around town and, as contemporary sources relate, waggling them flirtatiously at potential suitors.
Bilauts – Dressing To Impress
Just like today, medieval clothing was all about what you’re putting out into the world. What do your clothes say about you? Do they read as expensive? Are they fashion? Do they pop? The bilaut was arguably the ultimate expression of the feudal nobility – or those who wanted the world to think of them as noble. It is an enormous flowing dress, characterized by ridiculously impractical sleeves. But the impracticality was the point: if you had clothing so absurd that you couldn’t possibly do tasks like, say, cooking your own food or gathering your own firewood, then anyone who sees it would think ‘Hey, there’s someone who has staff’.
The billaut probably arrived in Europe from the Middle East around the 12th century, spread by returning Crusaders who had adopted the achingly cool fashion of the Holy Land. No really, they wore it to keep cool – if they’d kept their Western European woollens, they’d have gotten heatstroke.
Bombasting – Getting Swole, Medieval Style
Everyone’s got a friend who tried to impress a date by stuffing their clothes with strategically-placed socks. People in the Medieval period were really no different. We get the word ‘bombastic’ (meaning, showy, loud and obnoxious) from the habit of bombast – literally, stuffing your clothing to get the body of your dreams. The arms of doublets were often made with capacious sleeves that would be stuffed with moss or straw to give the perfect bulge, and Elizabethan dresses were often carefully shaped with stuffing to create an hourglass silhouette that accentuated the tininess of the waist. This effect is even more noticeable in the trends in 16th century men’s legwear – which favored a brawny, stuffed-to-bursting thigh (achieved with shorts stuffed with sawdust, linen tow or horsehair), with slender shapely calves. Nowadays, you or I might think that they look like a pair of pickled onions on cocktail sticks – but surely the pickled-onion-cocktail-stick look deserves another look next season…?
Chopines – Practical High Heels for the Pre-Sanitation City-Dweller
Medieval cities were frequently very smelly and dirty places. In the days before public sanitation, waste and rubbish would be simply thrown out onto the streets, often from top windows with a cry of ‘Guardy Low!’ (guardez l’eau, ‘look out for the water’). A lady of fashion would not wish to be walking in fine shoes through it, trailing her billaut in the muck! The chopine was an elegant solution to this, originating in 14th century Venice.
At the simplest, chopines were merely a simple platform shoe that elevated the wearer, like the Japanese geta sandal. But they quickly became much more. Most of Europe had strict sumptuary laws, which dictated what medieval clothing each social class was allowed to wear: from reserving ermine and rich furs for the elite, to restricting peasants to wearing only simple fabrics like linen and wool. Venice had very few of these sumptuary laws, so chopines rapidly became fashion objects, made with sprays of brocade and leather, sometimes more than twelve inches in height!